Sat, 29 Mar 2003

Rp 60b needed to return 11,000 families of Poso refugees

Ridwan Max Sijabat, The Jakarta Post, Poso, Central Sulawesi

Poppy, a 32-year-old Christian mother and wife wept over the hardships suffered by herself, her husband and her two young children since they had been forced to take refuge after the third replacement house they had built was burned down last December.

She, along with some 180 other Christian families, was forced to flee her home village in Bategincu, Lage district, Poso regency, soon after the sectarian conflict erupted there early in 1999.

"We are fed up with living in these deplorable conditions. We are bored waiting for nothing here. We want to go back home but we are afraid to do so as the situation in the district is still tense," she told Vice President Hamzah Haz during a five-minute visit by the latter to the refuge camp in Tentena.

Wati and Ade, two other women, echoed Poppy's experiences, and said that the government should resettle them in other areas as it had stopped providing humanitarian aid for the refugees in January, 2003.

Poradjo, Poppy's husband, said his family was living in conditions of dire hardship as the only work available was on local farms for a daily wage of around Rp 10,000. "It's not enough to cover our daily needs. It would be better for us to go back home but we are still traumatized by the burning down of our house," he said, adding that it had been built with financial assistance from the government in January, the most recent of three houses belonging to him that had been set ablaze since the eruption of the conflict.

The situation in Poso is gradually returning to normal even though the conflict has yet to be resolved comprehensively.

A large mosque and many houses that were ransacked and torched during the conflict have yet to be rebuilt. The same thing applies to dozens of ruined churches and houses in Poso town.

Different government agencies cite different figures on the number of refugees, with the generally accepted figure being over 11,000. The refugees are spread across Poso, Donggala and Marowali regencies, as well as Makassar, Gorontalo and North Sulawesi.

Andi Azikin, chief of the local social affairs office, regretted the lack of an organized response to the refugee problem, and said this was due to the absence of proper coordination between security authorities, the local administration, and the task force trying to reconcile the two conflicting camps.

He blamed the task force for the refugees' reluctance to go back home as reconciliation had yet to be brought about in many of the villages that were worst hit by the conflict.

"We have distributed humanitarian and financial aid, and resettlement funds to refugees, but many who had built new homes ended up returning to the refuge camp after these new homes were burned down again," he said, adding that his office had distributed Rp 60 billion to more than 13,000 families, and needed another Rp 60 billion to resettle the remaining 11,000 families taking refuge in South, Central and North Sulawesi, and Gorontalo.

He suggested that a rehabilitation program should be carried out in villages and districts where the two communities have reconciled their differences as was required under the peace agreement signed in Malino, South Sulawesi, on Dec. 21, 2001.

Poso regent Abdul Muin Pusadan conceded there were difficulties being faced in handling the refugee problem due to the tense situation in several districts in the regency.

He was referring to the decreasing role the task force had been playing in campaigning for the peace agreement, bringing about reconciliation between the conflicting communities and providing information on violations of the law before and after the peace accord's signing.

Both the governor and the regent called on the central government to maintain the deployment of more than 2,200 police personnel and 1,600 military personnel in the regency.

The police have yet to investigate all the crimes that were committed, thus giving rise to a lot of dissatisfaction with the implementation of the peace agreement.

"We have asked the task force to give us their preliminary data on violations of the law to allow the police to investigate them, but so far only major incidents that were highlighted by the press have been investigated," said Brig. Gen. Taufik Ridha, the Central Sulawesi Police chief.

He said that all elements in the task force had been trying to deal with the crimes committed by their own supporters in the past.

According to Taufik, the peace accord would not bring about justice for either side unless all crimes were investigated.

Pusadan expressed the fear that the failure to fully implement the ten-point Malino peace accord could trigger further conflict in the run-up to the 2004 general and presidential elections.

"That is why we are proposing that the central government maintain the presence of the more than 3,500 security personnel that are currently in the regency," he said.

Hamzah, who appeared less than responsive to the half-hearted implementation of the peace accord, called on local officials and religious leaders to actively participate in calming down the situation.

"Like the conflicts in Aceh, Papua, Maluku and Kalimantan, the sectarian conflict in Poso has a lot to do with widening social disparities, the common enemy the nation is fighting against," he said during a meeting with religious figures and local officials.

The Vice President called on locals and their leaders to condemn the U.S. war against Iraq but said nothing regarding a comprehensive resolution to the sectarian problems in the regency.